Journalists in Jordan say security forces routinely brutalise them and impose restrictions on their work. In addition, they say a new draft law that sought to give them more rights would change little as it still allowed for their imprisonment for publishing anything the state deemed controversial.
“What is happening lately with journalists - including detention, beatings or fines - is a clear violation of their personal security. Such practices would negatively suppress journalists and create an atmosphere of self-censorship,” said Nedal Mansour, head of the Centre for Defending Journalists, adding that more incidents of abuse were likely to happen if the government did not commit itself to protecting journalists.
Several incidents of attacks and harassment against journalists in Jordan have been reported since the beginning of this year. The latest involved a reporter from al-Rai newspaper, the most widely circulated Arabic daily, who was beaten up by a group of policemen last month in Amman.
The journalist, Khalid Khawaja, was admitted to hospital because of wounds sustained in the attack. The police denied wrongdoing and shifted the blame on Khawaja for allegedly “beating and insulting a policeman on duty”.
A few weeks earlier, three journalists from al-Ghad, al-Arab al-Yawm and al-Doustour dailies were arrested when they tried to cover a story in the northern city of Irbid and were reportedly threatened by the military governor to leave the area.
|What is happening lately with journalists - including detention, beatings or fines - is a clear violation of their personal security.|
Also, the editor al-Mehwar weekly tabloid, Hisham Khalidi, was fined US $15,000 on 9 February for publishing controversial material about a public institution.
These events have provoked angry reactions from the media community, including the Jordan Press Association (JPA) and rights groups, who said such measures represent a flagrant infringement of basic human rights and curtail media freedoms.
“There is a misunderstanding of the role of journalists and their duty as representatives of the society. Security forces do not realise that journalists are doing their job to report the truth and must be respected,” Tareq Moumani, head of the JPA, said.
Late last year, the JPA and the Higher Media Council agreed with senior police officials on mechanisms to improve relations between security forces and journalists to avoid further abuse in the future.
According to the arrangement, local journalists and foreign correspondents would be given special badges and vests recognised by police and police stations would allocate a duty officer responsible for dealing with the press if a major event occurs.
“We hope such measures would make police deal with journalists in a civilised manner,” said Moumani.
But local and foreign journalists believe curbing police abuse and harassment will take more than a badge and a vest.
Saad Hattar, the BBC’s correspondent in Amman, said officials must work on changing a “culture of fear and antagonism towards journalists within police ranks”.
|There is a misunderstanding of the role of journalists and their duty as representatives of the society. Security forces do not realise that journalists are doing their job to report the truth and must be respected.|
“We understand that in certain situations police might be forced to take extraordinary measures to protect a crime scene, but this does not mean they can dismiss journalists and prevent them from doing their job,” he said.
Police officials said it is inevitable that clashes between police and journalists occur but said the frequency of such incidents was very low in proportion to the size of the police force in the kingdom.
“We enjoy good relations with journalists and help them whenever we can. We consider the press as our partner in combating crimes,” said Bashir Daaja, spokesman for the public security department.
However, he admitted that “isolated” incidents could take place and urged journalists to come forward and report to authorities any abuse or threats they received.
New draft law
Under relentless pressure from rights groups, the government recently presented parliament with a draft press and publications law that sought to raise the ceiling of press freedom.
However, rights groups said they were not encouraged by the ambiguous content of the draft law. They said it does not clearly ban the imprisonment of journalists for publishing material deemed offensive and it does not reduce the fines imposed on journalists for perceived violations.
“The current law allows the government to prosecute journalists at the military-run state security court. It does not guarantee the right to obtain information and increases chances of political prosecution for publishing controversial material,” said Mansour of the Centre for Defending Journalists.
The current law gives authorities the right to detain journalists or fine them between US $20,000 to $27,000 for press violations, including charges of "incitement".
|A new law can allow journalists to defend themselves in courts but does not increase their chances of staying free.|
Journalists also expressed dissatisfaction with the new draft law, saying it had some unclear definitions of what could be reported and what could not be. They also said the law included several prohibitions that could easily incriminate a journalist.
“There was a gentlemen’s agreement between the government and journalists that the draft law would increase fines in return for guarantees that their imprisonment for press violation would be cancelled. But, according to the draft law, fines have been increased and journalists remain vulnerable to imprisonment,” said Jamil Nemri, a journalist from al-Ghad daily.
Media workers fear that conservative lawmakers will endorse the articles deemed restrictive and backward, despite ongoing campaigns by lobby groups to have them rejected.
Mahmoud Kharabsheh, a member of parliament who heads the parliamentary National Guidance Committee that is currently examining the draft law, said the committee would carefully examine the legislation and try to come up with a law that is agreed upon by all sides.
With or without the new press law, Nemri said he believed press freedom and an end to the abuse of journalists could only be achieved if there was a political willingness to allow journalists to do their work freely.
“There are several ways to pressure journalists and news organisations in Jordan through political or economic means. A new law can allow journalists to defend themselves in courts but does not increase their chances of staying free,” said Nemri.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions